Ark of Bulrushes

BULRUSHES, ARK OF (תֵּ֣בַת גֹּ֔מֶא). A small basket made of papyrus reeds and waterproofed with bituminous materials. The term is used in the Bible only of the ark made for the infant Moses, in which he was floated on the Nile in order to escape detection by the Egyptians (Exod 2:3ff.). It is generally agreed that the bulrush mentioned was the papyrus plant which, though not now found in the lower Nile, grew there abundantly in antiquity. The Heb. word גֹּ֫מֶא, H1687, is thought to have the root meaning “to swallow” or “to absorb” (BDB), which accords with its use for the swamp reed (Job 8:11). The Biblical usage also agrees with what is known of the uses made of papyrus reed and of its natural environment; e.g. boat construction (Isa 18:2), and abundance of water (Job 8:11; Isa 35:7).

Only the ark of bulrushes and Noah’s ark are called by the name tēbāh, which is possibly an Egyp. loan word for “box” or “coffin” (BDB); the usual word in Heb. for box or for the Ark of the covenant being ’arōn. No description is given of the shape or construction of the ark, except that it was daubed with waterproofing substances hēmār and zepheṭ (RSV “bitumen” and “pitch”). It was made with some sort of cover over the top which, even if the general shape was that of the papyrus boats of the Nile, could account for the name “ark” rather than “vessel” (keley) as these boats are called in Isaiah 18:2. Keil and Delitzsch suggest that “ark” was used to indicate the similarities in shape and purpose to Noah’s ark, but, depending on the origin and usage of the word tēbāh, the connection could be the other way around. Either way, the association would be appropriate to the unique significance of these two craft.


M. Kalisch, Exodus (1855), 22f.; KD, Exodus; W. Walker, All The Plants of the Bible (1958), 42.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

ark, bool’-rush-iz (tebhah; Egyptian tebt; Septuagint thibis, "a chest," "a vessel to float").

1. Definitions:

The Hebrew word here translated "ark" is used in the Old Testament only of the ark of Noah (Ge 6:14 ff) and of the ark of bulrushes (Ex 2:3), and always in the secondary meaning, a vessel to float. The Septuagint translates it of Noah’s ark by kibotos, "a casket," and of the ark of bulrushes by thibis, a little basket made of osiers or flags. For the Ark of the Covenant, the Hebrew employed a different word (’aron, "a chest"). Bulrushes (gome’, "papyrus"): This species of reed was used by the Egyptians for many different vessels, some of which were intended to float or even to be used as a skiff. Slime (chemar, "bitumen"), pitch (zepheth, "pitch") was probably the sticky mud of the Nile with which to this day so many things in Egypt are plastered. In this case it was mixed with bitumen. Flags (cuph, "sedge") were reeds of every kind and tall grass growing in the shallow water at the edge of the river.

2. History:

Thus the ark of bulrushes was a vessel made of papyrus stalks and rendered fit to float by being covered with a mixture of bitumen and mud. Into this floating vessel the mother of Moses placed the boy when he was three months old, and put the vessel in the water among the sedge along the banks of the Nile at the place where the ladies from the palace were likely to come to bathe. The act was a pathetic imitation of obedience to the king’s command to throw boy babies into the river, a command which she had for three months braved and which now she so obeyed as probably to bring the cruelty of the king to the notice of the royal ladies in such way as to arouse a womanly sympathy, A similar story is related of Sargon I of Babylonia (Records of the Past, 1st series, V, 1-4; Rogers, Hist. Babylonian and Assyrian, I, 362).

The one story in no wise discredits the other. That method of abandoning children, either willingly or by necessity, is as natural along the Nile and the Euphrates, where the river is the great artery of the land and where the floating basket had been used from time immemorial, as is the custom in our modern cities of placing abandoned infants in the streets or on door-steps where they are likely to be found, and such events probably occurred then as often as now.